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Friday the 13th’s Secret Weapon

@DoNatoBomb July 15, 2020

For any horror franchise that spans twelve films, over multiple decades (remakes and crossovers included), reinvention is critical. If filmmakers kept shuttling randy counselors into New Jersey woodlands located adjacent to Camp Crystal Lake, chances are audiences would have grown tired of successive campfire duplicates. The early films, Friday the 13th through The Final Chapter, remain faithful to this sleepaway formula without much deviation. It’s not until afterward that Jason begins reanimating like Frankenstein or facing off against other genre icons or slithering around as a body-snatching critter. It’s forced ambition stoked by necessity, as box office returns (mostly) ensured that Jason Voorhees could not, would not, ever die.

Granted, this is no revelation. Jason’s massacre has been ongoing since 1981 (Pamela Voorhees haunts the 1980’s original); journalistic unpackings date back just as far. Screenwriters tested a myriad of “twists” to keep Friday the 13th movies “fresh,” no matter how audacious or ill-fitting into franchise contexts the ideas might appear.

Maybe it’s A New Beginning , where Jason isn’t Jason under the mask.

Perhaps it’s The New Blood , where the final girl has telekinetic powers and can hurl potted plants at Jason with her mind (very Evil Dead II out of hopeful tonal mimicry).

Dare I again mention how Jason gets blown to smithereens by an elite special ops squadron, only to rematerialize as a wriggly life form that possesses victims by crawling into their mouths, or other bodily openings?

[shudders]

It’s the formula of any ongoing horror franchise, especially one dating back to the 80s. During those ten years between 1980 and 1990, Paramount released eight Friday the 13th films as the slasher subgenre kept on booming. Jason’s hockey mask became synonymous with in-theater screams, but not without issue: Jason himself wasn’t all that unique beyond his face-hiding signature. He’s a man, possibly dead or undead (depending on the sequel), fueled by his deceased mother’s vengeful memory. Mute, mangled behind his facial blocker, but ultimately just a lumbering brute with the strength to crush craniums between his hands like rotten cantaloupes. For Jason to continue his domination of blockbuster thrills, his films would have to sharpen hooks that’d reel audiences back in once more – hence how Jason got bitten by the wanderlust bug.

Has there been a slasher villain with a more colorful passport than Jason?

The Leprechaun comes to mind, who fled podunk isolation for Las Vegas, another planet, and then “the hood” (twice).

Chucky took a road trip, invaded Hollywood, and went to military school.

It’s harder for villains like Michael Myers or Freddy Krueger, who stalk landmark towns like Haddonfield or namesakes like Elm Street.

Jason even fits this description given the “Camp Blood” curse, but he eventually breaks past Crystal Lake’s invisible borders where his soul once remained tethered. Jason takes a graduation cruise, is sent to Hell, travels to Manhattan (so he enters Hell twice according to some opinions), blasts into orbit, and even infiltrates Freddy’s dreamland. Oh, the places you’ll go when writers have to keep longtime viewers interested (but body counts are required).

Variety may be the spice of life, but the balance between familiar franchise notes and further sequel justification is debated entry by entry throughout Jason Voorhees’ saga. For example, New Blood's mental superpowers subplot is something that misses almost every mark in my analysis but stands as a favorite for other colleagues.

It’s the unique benefit of selecting whichever Friday the 13th movie, in any out-of-chronology order, and not feeling baffled by what little continuity might exist. Beyond introductions that recap necessary information, later sequels went so bonkers with plotting that narratives were wholly self-contained. Jason Goes to Hell plays in its own sandbox, with new related characters introduced alongside ego-batty bounty hunters. It’s the same advantage of Jason X, which requires no prior knowledge of Friday the 13th events beyond Jason’s notoriety.

What’s consistently at the core of every Friday the 13th film are the staples that came to be the first time Pamela claimed a life. Jason X takes place on an interstellar spacecraft, the Grendel, populated by scientists and students with anthropological motivations – but they’re also super horny. I don’t mention that to be crass, but lusty shenanigans immediately remind us how this is indeed a Friday the 13th film despite all the fancy new bells and whistles. Characters are still libido-driven, refuse to believe Jason’s legend, and will suffer cruel fates whenever Jason arises from his cryogenic slumber. The same for Jason Goes to Hell, which manages to squeeze in an outdoor intercourse interruption despite not focusing on campsites. It might appear as titillation for tantalization’s sake, but the larger message conveyed is, “we know why you’re here, and we’ll honor your expectations.” New ideas, same slasher-silly norms.

That’s why Friday the 13th has become a quintessential 80’s slasher property that’s still as popular as ever. Sean S. Cunningham and Victor Miller (without knowing) laid the groundwork for an easily replicated, endlessly open cinematic universe with enough mythology to mine yet equally definitionless freedoms to rework the existing foundations (Ron Kurz’s scripted focus on Jason in Friday the 13th Part 2 ).

It’s so customizable. Voiceless monster hunts low-awareness morons and uses an array of torture tools highlighted by the effects wizardry of Tom Savini, John Carl Buechler, and more.

Any “comfort food” aesthetic comes from our ability to know what we’re getting, no matter the backdrop, every single time we flip on a Jason Voorhees rampage. Whether it works or not? It’s a numbers game based on the shelf of titles alone.

If my marathon binge taught me anything, it’s that the simplicity of Friday the 13th isn’t a hindrance; it’s a secret weapon.

I’ve heard arguments about the chronic mediocrity of Jason Voorhees as a character, and how that makes his empire all the more frustrating. A few days ago I might have agreed. Now? A full-dive revisitation that contextually stacked every Friday the 13th at a breakneck pace made me realize how exploration is a saving grace of this franchise. Jason’s walked 500 miles and covered countless more in hyperdrive, but he always finds his way back home, whether in spirit or geographic placement. A mutant man of mystery who always fulfills his promise, no matter how far-flung narratives travel or what special upgrades are bestowed unto the surrounding environment, wherever Jason Voorhees turns up next.

Friday the 13th

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